WHRD and Social Media: A Complex Relationship

Exploring the Complex Relationship Between Women Human Rights Defenders and Social Media

A guest post by Ashvini Rae

When I started thinking about possible dissertation topics, I knew that I wanted to do research on women’s rights in India. I thought this was a great topic but, as my supervisor correctly pointed out, it’s a huge one. There are, after all, so many different aspects to the topic of “women’s rights in India”. When I started doing preliminary reading, I found that the 2012 Delhi protests were a common theme and that there are plenty of brilliant papers on them and particularly on their unique use of social media (e.g. Ahmed and Jaidka, 2013 and Poell and Rajagopalan, 2015). However, I found that there is almost no research on the wider effects of social media on women’s rights activism in post-2012 India or its effects on Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) more generally. In fact, there is almost no literature on WHRDs and social media anywhere in the world.

From there I decided to read up on WHRDs, particularly the risks they face, and also on social media activism and I thought about how I could pull these two themes together and also somehow also bring in the lived experiences of WHRDs in India into this. (And how to do all of this in 10,000 words!) I had to think very carefully about how I could take theoretical arguments about WHRDs generally and social media and apply them to India specifically. For instance, the literature says that the experiences of WHRDs should be considered in a gender-sensitive and intersectional way because different WHRDs experience things like risk differently. AWID (2013), for instance, argues that “beyond gender, other factors, such as class, religion, age, language, gender identity and sexual orientation, location of residence, race and ethnicity, affect how WHRDs experience a violation”. 

But what does this mean for WHRDs in India? As my research shows, there are several factors that can affect how a WHRD faces risk online. Some of these are more universal – such as age and sexual orientation. Some of these are more specific to India. For instance, WHRDs in India might be vulnerable to discrimination online due to their caste, which might not be a factor affecting WHRDs in other countries. For instance, Kiruba Munusamy, a Supreme Court lawyer and anti-caste activist, described this saying, “when you are a Dalit, a woman and dark in colour, many do not even come forward to raise their voices for you like they would have if you didn’t belong to a marginalised community” (Salim, 2018). Another important factor affecting WHRDs in India is religion. As the trolling of Rana Ayyub shows, non-Hindu WHRDs are susceptible to trolling not only because of their gender but also their religion.

In order to properly answer the question – “what does this mean for WHRDs in India?” – I decided to try and speak to some. I was very keen to understand and hopefully amplify the lived experiences of WHRDs in India. I was lucky enough to interview some absolutely incredible women who have dedicated themselves to defending human rights and women’s rights to understand their experiences of using social media. The main finding of these interviews is that social media has brought WHRDs in India new opportunities and benefits but also a great amount of risk.

In terms of the benefits of social media, one thing that many of my interviewees mentioned is that they’ve been able to use social media to recruit and mobilise potential activists and to gain support for their organisations. One interviewee told me that social media has also helped her to connect with other WHRDs across India. By connecting WHRDs, social media enables and encourages working collaboratively as well as the sharing of resources and support. One key benefit of this is that WHRDs can experience solidarity online and can use social media to create their own support systems, which can play an important role in their self-care. The WHRDs I interviewed mentioned the need for self-care as well as the importance of the solidarity that they have been able to experience via social media.

Another key theme from my interviews is that social media can help WHRDs to access the media and other key stakeholders in society, as well as the wider public. One interviewee, for instance, said that she uses Facebook as a platform mainly because it helps her to have her voice heard and to connect with the media. Being able to amplify their voices helps WHRDs not only to publicise their work but also to help foster more conversations on issues of women’s rights in wider society. The use of social media in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi rape case, for example, shows how social media can lead to greater discourse around the topic of Violence of Women and Girls as it helped to put women’s rights issues back on the political agenda. This has been reinforced by the recent impact of the #MeToo movement on Indian society.

Social media can be a really powerful tool for WHRDs in India. But it can also be an incredibly dangerous one. While the increased visibility that social media brings WHRDs can help them, it can also open them up to threats and risks, such as trolling. I asked my interviewees about their experiences of trolling and found their answers illuminating but also very distressing. One interviewee told me that social media makes trolling women worryingly easy, while another told me that its anonymous nature enables an outpouring of misogynistic hate for these WHRDs which we might not see otherwise. This was reflected by the experiences of my interviewees, which I found particularly shocking. One interviewee told me that she’d faced death threats and has seen female friends and colleagues being bullied off social media, while another told me that she’d faced rape threats online. It is also important to consider how easily these online threats can translate into offline risks. The murder of Gauri Lankesh in 2017, for instance, is a pertinent reminder that WHRDs are vulnerable to violence not only online but also offline.

Similarly, an interviewee told me that she believes her online presence has made her more vulnerable to violence in the real world and has opened her up to more abuse. The threats that WHRDs face online and the risks that they might face offline are gender-specific and motivated predominantly by misogyny. One thing that most of my interviewees picked up on is that trolling is fuelled by a desire to silence women and to prevent them from speaking up though, as previously mentioned, other forms of discrimination (e.g. caste-based) might also play into this.

Social media, as I found, is a double-edged sword for WHRDs in India. It can help them to garner support and experience solidarity but it can also lead to them attracting misogynistic and vitriolic trolling. We must ensure that we amplify the voices of WHRDs, rather than silence them. We must also make sure we do our part to address trolling. In short, we must do better.


Ahmed, S. and Jaidka, K. (2013). Protests against #delhigangrape on Twitter: Analyzing India’s Arab Spring. JeDEM – eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government, 5(1), pp.28-58.

AWID. (2013). Recommendations to Enhance the Protection and Security of Women Human Rights Defenders. [Online] Available at: https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Recommendations%20To%20Enhance%20The%20Protection%20And%20Security%20Of%20WHRDs.pdf.

Salim, M. (2018). Online Trolling of Indian Women Is Only an Extension of the Everyday Harassment They Face. [Online] The Wire. Available at: https://thewire.in/women/online-trolling-of-indian- women-is-only-an-extension-of-the-everyday-harassment-they-face

Poell, T. and Rajagopalan, S. (2015). Connecting Activists and Journalists. Journalism Studies, 16(5), pp.719-733.